Someone recently described how his thoughts felt like a washing machine of negativity. He’d been feeling anxious for some time and was facing an important family event he’d organised. A common enough experience but how can we make sense of it. He was familiar with the ideas on thinkingasaction but couldn’t turn the washing machine off.
If we know anxiety is something we are doing, why is it difficult to stop doing it? Many people I talk to have a lightbulb moment when we discuss the example of The Speeding Car (see Thinking Tools). This thought experiment shows that feelings of anxiety arise because we are predicting something that we don’t want. However, even when this feels like a revelation people often find it very difficult to put the ideas into practice. Why is this?
The culture we live in takes a very different view of anxiety. It tells us we ‘suffer from’ or ‘have’ anxiety. This turns anxiety into a thing that has a life outside of what we are doing and thinking. On the Internet anxiety is usually described as being caused by our genetics, our early life, personality or our brain chemistry. Intense or ongoing anxiety is seen as a condition or disorder. The way we think, our ideas about how things work, what we want, and how we think about ourselves, usually don’t get a mention. (see my blog on NHS.co.uk). The Speeding Car offers a very different view and puts us at the heart of our experience. If we want to see anxiety as an ordinary psychological act it is important to understand that culture is against us when it comes to understanding our experiences from an active psychological point of view. Culture is hard to see through and resist. It is hard to overestimate just how subtle and pervasive its influence is. Cultural ideas about anxiety get us to focus on our feelings not on the thinking that lies behind them. In this way it strips us of understanding and responsibility for our thoughts.
Once we see how culture obscures the ordinary psychology of feeling anxious, we need also to recognise how ordinary thinking works.
Another thought experiment under Thinking Tools is the Decorated Room. It describes how thinking is made up of choices about what to focus on, how we judge it and how much we think it matters. It illustrates how we can easily get drawn into big ideas about ourselves. If something doesn’t work out the way we’d like we can easily end up blaming ourselves by drawing big negative conclusions about ourselves. We compare ourselves with others and conclude ”we are different from other people”, “we are weak”, “we’ve always been an anxious person”. These big ideas carry a lot of emotion. When we’re feeling anxious these ideas only make us feel worse. They make the washing machine spin faster. This is the ordinary stuff we all do at times. Culture makes it more likely we do it because it doesn’t let us see the connection between our thoughts and feelings. Some such big ideas are always a part of any intense distress and we need to see the power they have because at the end of the day they are unnecessary and simply not true.
The Decorated Room is a good example of how our thoughts easily escalate. If we insist on thinking “we are a weak person” or “there is something wrong with us”, we only make ourselves feel worse. If anxiety arises when we predict something and at the same time don’t want it, we can see our focus should not be on whether we ‘have anxiety’ or are ‘an anxious person’ but on how we act and think in the here-and-now. If we feel anxious for an extended period, it is because we keep thinking anxiously. Anxiety is not a thing with a life of its own, but it is made up of separate acts of thinking anxiously. It lasts as long as we keep thinking something bad might happen. If we think these thoughts with conviction, allowing no doubt, we feel worse. If we find ourselves feeling continually anxious it is helpful to try to focus on the individual pieces of the anxiety jigsaw.
But we also need to accept if we are in a generally anxious state two things are likely. Firstly, we need to see that once we are anxious about one thing, we are more likely to find something else to worry about. Secondly, we are likely to react intensely to any situation that is more challenging.
Again, The Decorated Room can help us here. It offers an insight into how we develop moods or frames of mind such as an ongoing state of anxiety. If in our Decorated Room we focus on an imperfection and slide up the hierarchy of bigger and bigger conclusions until we are believing that “most things we do are not good enough” and that “the future will only be filled with more failure and unhappiness”, when we leave our Room that frame of mind colours how we see the next situation. On the other hand, if we focus on the same imperfection and only go as far as thinking “we should have done better but so be it”, this conclusion won’t necessarily have any relevance to the next situation we find ourselves in. In this way we can understand an ongoing feeling of anxiety as a sequence of anxious thoughts about a sequence of situations. Each anxious thought/action is a piece of the jigsaw that makes up a picture of an ongoing anxious state.
So, once we’re anxious we are more likely to think anxiously about the next thing we think about it. This is an ordinary part of the dynamics of our thinking. It applies to our negative thinking and our positive thinking.
When we’re in washing machine mode our thoughts flip from one thing to the next. This couldn’t be described as comfortable, but it is a natural state that any of us can generate if we think in certain ways. It is not evidence of a condition or disorder. If our thoughts were positive rather than anxious, we’d be in an excitable state.
The Decorated Room tells us that thinking involves making choices about what we focus on, how we judge it and what we think it means or how much it matters. It is an example of the very different ways we can think about the same thing. The Decorated Room describes the dynamics of thinking. It does not suggest that we could ever reach a point where we can manage our thinking to the extent we never take a negative view or are never in washing machine mode. Instead it shows us that much of our thinking is outside of our immediate awareness and that it is immensely complex and fast. As a result, it suggests our aim can only be to manage our thinking a little better, so we minimise its extremes.
As we try to help ourselves out of feeling constantly anxious, we need to focus less on our feelings and more on how we are thinking about each situation that comes up. A constant feeling of anxiety can only be maintained by a constant stream of anxious thoughts, each an act of thinking that keeps the washing machine spinning.
Lastly, we need to be patient. We are complex creatures and our thinking is dynamic and multi-layered. Change can be hard work. As we become more aware of the way we approach situations we will find that sometimes we manage to moderate or change our anxious thoughts. It is useful to celebrate these small steps. We shouldn’t focus on the fact that we might still feel anxious much of the time. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Not that I am suggesting it will necessarily be a long journey. Once we understand how feelings of anxiety really arise from how we are thinking about specific things we can sometimes begin to apply this principle across the board. Football fans will be impressed by the example of Manchester United which shows the frame of mind of a whole team can change dramatically and how this can lead to a transformation of their performance.
Many ordinary sensible people develop ‘anxiety problems’. Are they partly simply misled by culture? The Origin of Anxieties describes the very ordinary, normal psychological processes involved. Available from Amazon.co.uk or from Charles Merrett, 12 Erpingham Road, Poole, BH12 1EX £10 + £2 p&p.